Is there a bias against women on social media? – opinion

It’s long been said that women are more vilified in the public eye than men. Female public figures are heavily scrutinized for not only their looks, but they also receive more pushback when they express strong opinions, and this of course, translates to online hate. In Israel, the trend is no different. Recent statistics from an analyst who tracks social media behavior on Twitter among Israeli influencers confirms that women in Israel also receive more pushback than men on the network. Social media companies should revise their algorithms with this in mind, so as to be part of the solution instead of the problem.

For years, numerous organizations have tracked statistics on harassment of women online. Whether journalists, activists, or elected officials, women are far more likely to be on the receiving end of negative comments and even threats. A study in the US of political candidates showed that female candidates are far more likely to be abused online than male candidates, and on Facebook, Democratic female candidates received ten times more negative comments than male Democratic candidates. In another case study, when Kamala Harris was chosen as the vice presidential candidate, The Washington Post reported that coordinated misinformation about her was shared nearly 3,000 times per hour. But it’s far beyond just the United States.

The United Nations issued a report this year regarding the sharp increase in misogyny online during the COVID-19 pandemic that specifically impacted women in politics in Asia. In one study, they found that over 10,000 hostile tweets were directed at female politicians in India each day. In Europe, the Inter-parliamentary Union issued a report in both 2016 and 2018 demonstrating the 80% of female politicians surveyed experienced receiving online sexist and misogynistic remarks, humiliating images, intimidation and threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction while in public office.

In October 2020, female members of the Irish parliament stated that over 96% of them have experienced online abuse and harassment. One member of parliament even stated, “You wonder whether it’s worth it. Did I really go into public office and serve the public to deal with this crap?” Her comment brings up precisely the question which misogynists want female leaders to ask. The purpose of this hate speech has a censoring effect: It prevents women from entering public life in order to avoid such demoralizing attacks and relentless criticism, whether on the outfits they wear, their personal opinions, or how they vote.

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Beyond the hateful comments, there is also a technical and structural challenge in facing down this bias against women. On Twitter for example the metrics are geared in a way that presents men as “influential” and women less so. To be “ratioed” on Twitter is to receive more comments than retweets or likes. This almost always has a negative connotation even though it isn’t always necessarily the case. Retweets and likes are “good” whereas disproportionate comments are “bad.” 

Lior Malenboim is an Israeli analyst who compiles a monthly report of opinion leaders on Israeli society that includes the top 50 influencers on Twitter as well as the top 50 “negative” influencers – public figures who receive the greatest “ratios.” A quick look at last month’s statistics show that under influential people, there is only one woman listed in the top 10. However, looking at the list of most “ratioed” Israeli influencers, there are six in the top 10, with Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked topping the list. Once again, we see that while the Twittersphere views men as having opinions of influence, they view women, no matter how high-ranking, as targets for harassment. 

The truth is that most outspoken individuals online receive an outpouring of hate in response – regardless of gender. The Internet can be a scary place. But examining the concept of “ratio” on Twitter paints a pretty accurate picture of the reality on the ground for female leaders. Twitter, as well as other networks, needs to reform their platforms so it is more difficult to misuse them as tools for misogynistic harassment. There is an inherent bias on social media against women and we should hold social media networks accountable for helping to remedy this issue, rather than exacerbating it.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.

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